Downtown Durango thrives because buildings get recycled.
Former car dealerships are now brewpubs and office buildings. Our historic electric power plant is the Powerhouse Science Center, and a decades-old tire repair shop has evolved into an upbeat gym and fitness center. Durangatangs know how to recycle commercial buildings. So do Bluffoons.
Two and a half hours west of Durango, the small desert town of Bluff, Utah, is experiencing a canyon country renaissance. A dozen new tourist cabins are going up. A 54-unit resort is being built. A former trading post is a thriving restaurant, and the old Silver Dollar Bar built in 1955 has found new life as the forthcoming Bears Ears Education Center. Bluff is on the southern end of the controversial Bears Ears National Monument and local residents, Bluffoons, are proud of it.
The town just incorporated. This summer, it’ll have a mayor and city council, and the Silver Dollar Bar, once home to beer and burgers, will serve up tourist information and cautionary comments about desert hiking and visiting archaeological sites with respect.
HHHRecently purchased by the Friends of Cedar Mesa, the Silver Dollar Bar once catered to sheepherders, truckers, uranium miners, “just whoever came down the road,” says 84-year-old Duke Simpson. “There was all kinds who came to Bluff over the years.” As for dancing at the bar, Simpson says, “It was Saturday night live,” with patrons waltzing into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Writing about a bar fight in Alaska, Ed Abbey waxed nostalgic. He described it as, “Just like down home: The Club 66 in Flag, the Eagle in Gallup or the Silver Dollar in Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Reservation – the only bar in Utah where you can hear squaw dance music on the jukebox.”
“I went in and ordered a hamburger,” Simpson told me, “and the old man who was cooking tipped his head back and spit on the grill to make sure it was hot enough. Then he plopped down a beef patty and proceeded to cook the burger. But after watching his grilling style, I declined the sandwich.”
The Silver Dollar catered to locals and the occasional tourist willing to risk dusty, dry roads to get to Bluff. “Everyone going through Bluff just kept going,” remembers Bureau of Land Management River Ranger Larry Beck. “A few river runners stopped in, but it was lonely at the counter, often only me and the bartender. I used to walk to the bar and then walk home. I liked to joke that when I left Bluff that the poor bar might go out of business with my departure.”
That was in the 1980s.
HHHOver the years, Bluff’s three bars disappeared as restaurants developed to serve beer and wine. The tourists passing through are now staying. Bluff is emerging as a vital destination between the Grand Canyon with its 5 million annual visitors and Arches and Canyonlands national parks with 2 million tourists. National monument status for Bears Ears, even with President Donald Trump shrinking it by 85 percent, has brought a whole new generation of canyon country hikers trying to avoid crowds and trying to find wilderness values of silence, solitude and darkness. But there’s no information center. No local source of maps, directions, suggestions, though the San Juan Record reports that visitation to BLM lands in southeastern Utah is up 35 percent.
To the north in Monticello, on its new campus, the Canyon Country Discovery Center orients travelers to the entire Colorado Plateau. The BLM has an office in town, but no place to host displays or to engage visitors. In Blanding, the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park does a superb job of interpreting ancestral Puebloan artifacts with engaging exhibits on historic and prehistoric themes, but it functions as a museum, not as a public lands visitor center. Up on Cedar Mesa, volunteers at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station do their best to answer questions, but in their small space, they are frequently swamped. So the Friends of Cedar Mesa are raising funds and donated labor to do what the federal government does not have the budget or the staffing to accomplish.
Meanwhile, Bears Ears National Monument’s status and boundaries are in turmoil. President Barack Obama’s 1.35 million-acre monument may become “Trump’s small units” of just two areas – a Shash Jaa’ Monument along Comb Ridge north to the Bears Ears buttes at close to 9,000 feet and the famous climbing sandstone spires of Indian Creek. Tribes, environmental groups and partners in the outdoor recreation industry are suing over Trump’s unprecedented action, which is without parallel in the history of the 1906 Antiquities Act.
“Right now, it feels like the Bears Ears Education Center is one of the only positive things happening for the monument. The incredible national support we’ve seen for the center indicates people’s hunger for positive, proactive actions to take on behalf of public lands,” says Amanda Podmore, assistant director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. “It’s exciting to turn this historic bar and community space into a venue where visitors, locals and friends from everywhere can ‘belly up’ for information about how to visit Bears Ears with respect.”
HHHIndeed, in true Western fashion, the outside of the building facing the highway has glass block walls so patrons inside could not be seen. Most laborers in the working West heading to a bar had spent plenty of time outside, so the last thing they wanted was a window with a view. They wanted to see cold beer and an array of whiskey bottles. At the old Silver Dollar, the bar is still there as is the back bar with its wooden drawers and refrigerated cases. Over the years, the Silver Dollar became a private residence with the nickname of the Nada Bar, or not a bar, and children and adults playfully placed painted handprints all over the ceiling and front of the bar.
Why not? Handprints are found in canyon alcoves and above room blocks and habitation sites across the Southwest, so why not in a saloon? Former owner Kyle Bauman is pleased with the sale and says his vintage bar building “was handed off to an organization which will continue the tradition of a community-based location for keeping the community united in art, information and adventure.”
The 3,800-square-foot building on 0.43 acres is being transformed as is Bluff itself. Extra rooms will become office space, meeting space and staff living quarters. There’ll be outdoor patios, courtyards and parking in the back. “The Nada Bar, now the Bears Ears Education Center has a long and endearing history to many Bluffoons,” says Tamara Desrosiers, volunteer board member. “It went from being a low-rent rez-border-town dive to an unofficial community center after Kyle Bauman bought it, and had to post on the door ‘Not a Bar.’ Gourd painting, poetry readings, music, lectures, Thanksgiving dinners, dances, parties ... there are a lot of memories reflected in all those painted handprints on the ceiling above the old bar.”
The goal for the project is $840,000 for the building purchase, renovations, bathroom and electrical upgrades, solar installations and staff salaries for a three-year start-up period. Friends of Cedar Mesa have raised $600,000, with $100,000 coming from outdoor supplier North Face. “We are extremely grateful and excited to have received such broad support for our efforts to create the Bears Ears Education Center,” says Vaughn Hadenfeldt, board president and local guide.
So stop in and watch the transformation. If you can, swing a hammer or apply a paintbrush. Writing checks to Friends of Cedar Mesa is useful, too. I hope the potlucks and the parties continue. After all, bears like to eat and dance.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.